NASSIRIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - About 500 Australian combat troops pulled out of their base in southern Iraq on Sunday, fulfilling an election promise by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring the soldiers home this year.
A spokesman for Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said in the Australian capital Canberra the withdrawal from Talil base in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad, was under way.
Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, was one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq invasion which toppled President Saddam Hussein.
It also deployed aircraft and warships to the Gulf to protect Iraq’s offshore oil platforms.
Fitzgibbon said the withdrawal of the ground troops closed another chapter in Australian military history.
“Our soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that local people in southern Iraq have the best possible chance to move on from their suffering under Saddam’s regime and, as a government we are extremely proud of their service,” Fitzgibbon said.
Australian troops had won the respect of the Iraqi people, he said in a statement.
A spokesman for the governor of Dhi Qar province said the withdrawal had been completed, with U.S. forces replacing the Australians.
Since handing over security of Dhi Qar province to the Iraqis, the main role of the Australian battle group, numbering about 515 soldiers, has been to train and support Iraqi forces.
Rudd, who won elections last November, had promised to bring home frontline troops this year. Polls show 80 percent of Australians oppose the war.
Australia’s top military commander, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said in February that after the troops pulled out, Australia would leave behind two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship helping patrol the oil platforms, as well as a small force of security and headquarters liaison troops.
A British military spokesman in the southern Iraqi city of Basra said Australian civilians training the police and advising the Iraqi government would also stay behind.
Several people interviewed in Nassiriya voiced concern about U.S. troops taking over from the Australians.
“We are against ... American forces in the area because they are using weapons while the Australians didn’t do anything harmful against the people all the time they were in the province,” said teacher Hassan Mohsin, 32.
“I think the return of the Americans to the city will cause many problems. They will make many arrests,” said shopkeeper Abdullah Muzhir.
Australia and the United States have said Rudd’s plans for a partial withdrawal from Iraq would not affect the strong security and Defense alliance between the two countries.
One Australian soldier died in Iraq, but he was not killed in combat.
Australia is the latest of a number of countries to reduce their military presence in Iraq as the country’s army and police gradually take control of security, leaving the U.S. military ever more dominant as the largest foreign force in Iraq.
Britain handed responsibility for the southern province of Basra to Iraqi security forces last year, pulling 4,000 soldiers back to an airport base outside Basra.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin and Adrian Croft in Baghdad; Sonali Paul in Sydney